The Phoenix Mercury said Tuesday that Diana Taurasi will miss a minimum of four weeks with a small sternum fracture, which she suffered in the team's May 16 loss to the Connecticut Sun and played through the next two games, before a CT scan diagnosed the injury.
At age 38 and in her 17th WNBA season, Taurasi remains Phoenix's second-leading scorer, and she delivered one of the team's two wins thus far with a 3-pointer in the final second on opening night against the Minnesota Lynx. How can the Mercury (2-2) fill in for Taurasi? Let's take a look at their options.
Phoenix can keep extra player via hardship
Because three Mercury stars -- including Taurasi -- are making the WNBA's maximum salary ($221,450), the team could only afford to keep 11 players on its opening roster instead of the 12 the league allows. On May 14, Phoenix added a 12th player, forward Cierra Burdick, using an emergency hardship exception by virtue of having fewer than 10 active players; guard Bria Hartley is still working her way back from an ACL tear suffered in August 2020, and center Kia Vaughn is late to rejoin the team after her season in Turkey.
Before Taurasi's injury, the Mercury would have had to release Burdick when Vaughn returned to the lineup after clearing COVID-19 protocols. Vaughn is expected back on Wednesday against the Las Vegas Aces, per Jeff Metcalfe of the Arizona Republic.
Now, Phoenix can keep the extra player, though it doesn't have to be Burdick -- who has seen just 19 minutes of action in four games. With Hartley and Taurasi sidelined, the Mercury might prefer to add depth in the backcourt. Former Syracuse guard Tiana Mangakahia, who was with Phoenix in training camp before being waived May 12, is one possible addition.
This time around, the Mercury will likely remain eligible for an emergency hardship for an extended period because Hartley doesn't seem likely to return before Taurasi.
The hope is that Hartley will be able to play before the WNBA breaks for the Olympics in mid-July.
"There is no timetable," Phoenix coach Sandy Brondello told Metcalfe. "She hasn't started any kind of one-on-one action; she's still just building up. It's been slower than what she would have hoped, but ACL is a tricky situation, and she did have a hip surgery, as well, that put her back. There's no set date."
How will Phoenix replace Taurasi's production?
The challenge for Brondello is twofold: replacing Taurasi's minutes over the next month and replacing her production. Through four games, she was averaging 15.8 points, 3.8 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 28.0 minutes per game, while shooting 40.4% from the field.
Prior to Taurasi's injury, the Mercury had relied heavily on their starting five, with no reserve playing more than Shey Peddy's 15.5 MPG. Peddy and wing Megan Walker, who has seen action in three of Phoenix's four games and has averaged 13.3 MPG off the bench, are the likely contenders to replace Taurasi in the lineup. Neither has yet started a game in their brief WNBA careers.
Since Peddy and Walker are role players, the Mercury can't ask them to pick up the scoring punch provided by Taurasi, the WNBA's all-time leader who is closing in on 9,000 career points. (She is just six points shy of becoming the first player in league history to reach that milestone.) Although Taurasi's scoring average this season is 10 points behind the league leaders, she still sported a team-high 26% usage rate over the first four games.
Instead, the extra opportunities on offense will likely go to Phoenix's other two All-Stars, center Brittney Griner and point guard Skylar Diggins-Smith.
Griner is off to a slow start offensively, averaging a career-low 14.5 points per 36 minutes. Her usage rate is down from 26% of the Mercury's plays in the 12 games she played in 2020 -- before leaving the bubble in Bradenton, Florida, for personal reasons -- to 22% so far in 2021. Griner's shooting percentage (a career-low 43%) is down too, but that's likely a fluke. She has hit just 28% of her 2-point attempts outside the restricted area (5-of-18), per WNBA Advanced Stats, way off her 45% on these shots last season.
We saw during Griner's absence in 2020 how Diggins-Smith can step up her scoring when needed. After averaging 15.1 PPG during the 12 games Griner played last season, Diggins-Smith bumped that up to 23.0 PPG over the next nine, before playing just 17 minutes in Phoenix's season finale. Diggins-Smith's true shooting percentage dropped only slightly with the heavier offensive load, from .640 in the season's first 12 games to .612 in the last 10.
Both Griner and Diggins-Smith are better options to take on more shot creation than wing Kia Nurse, who is again struggling with her shot. While Nurse has been more accurate than in 2020, when she made just 31% of her 2s and 24% of her 3s on a New York Liberty team starved for creators, her marks this season (38% on 2s and 32% on 3s) remain inefficient.
Timetable for Taurasi's return?
Beyond the estimate provided by the Mercury, it's tough to tell how long Taurasi will be out because a sternum fracture is a rare injury for basketball players. I can't find any examples in the WNBA and my database of NBA injuries shows just one player missing time with a sternum fracture: then-New Orleans Pelicans center Alexis Ajinca, who returned 18 days after suffering the injury in March 2016.
Jeff Stotts of InStreetClothes.com found that Dwight Howard played through a stress fracture of the sternum during the 2008 playoffs and that Michael Beasley suffered the injury during the offseason, meaning unknown duration.
If Taurasi is able to return after four weeks, she would miss the next nine games, during which Phoenix's schedule looks largely favorable. Five of those nine games are at home, and two of the road games are against the struggling Los Angeles Sparks (0-2), making an above-.500 record in that span a realistic possibility. In addition to the Sparks, the Chicago Sky (two games) and Dallas Wings (all three head-to-head meetings this season) also stand to benefit from playing the Mercury without Taurasi.
Taurasi missing longer than four weeks might start to put her expected spot on the U.S. roster for the Olympics in some jeopardy as she potentially goes for a fifth gold medal. We're a little less than two months away from the scheduled start of basketball competition in Tokyo on July 24.
If all goes well, Taurasi should be back on the court well before that to help Phoenix finish the first part of the WNBA schedule strong and prep for the Olympics.